The Sule Pagoda is a stupa in the heart of downtown Yangon. It is in the center of the city and an important space in contemporary Myanmar politics, ideology and geography. Photo: iStock
The Sule Pagoda is a stupa in the heart of downtown Yangon. It is in the center of the city and an important space in contemporary Myanmar politics, ideology and geography. Photo: iStock

Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey has caused a stir with  a series of tweets about his recent visit to Myanmar. He tweeted that Myanmar is “an absolutely beautiful country. The people are full of joy and the food is amazing,” adding, “We visited and meditated at many monasteries around the country.”

Seemingly harmless. But not for the many who registered their anger on Twitter, in what has, as it so often does, turned from online outrage, to mainstream news, and finally, a socially accepted “truth.” Their rebuke largely stems from two issues, the first being Dorsey’s failure to mention the heinous persecution of the Rohingya people in the country, and second, social media’s role in the dissemination of nationalist hate speech against that minority group.

Those are undeniable realities. But the question for those who considered Dorsey’s tweets “tone deaf” is, what then is the appropriate behavior? Should all mentions of Myanmar include a disclaimer addressing the Rohingya’s plight? Should we forgo promoting tourism in places where there are human-rights abuses? Is it wrong to say anything positive about a country where atrocities take place?

There may be an argument that Dorsey should have used his platform  to condemn the injustices in Myanmar, and/or included an acknowledgement of the damaging impact online platforms have played in spreading vitriol. Perhaps it was just about showing awareness (he has subsequently revealed that he is aware of the situation). But it is not really clear what any of this was meant tangibly to achieve, beyond our incessant desire for platitudes. Indeed, the Rohingya don’t want our anger – they want our help.

In fact, it could actually be the reaction to Dorsey’s tweets that does greater harm in the end. Given the coverage, many Myanmar citizens – the majority of whom are not responsible for the attacks on the Muslim minority – will assume any warmth toward them is universally criminal. Driving a wedge between the international community and the people of Myanmar does little if not make nationalism, and anti-minority rhetoric, more appealing.

Of course, conflict societies are far more fragile and complex than the black-or-white narratives portray them. Let’s not forget, not long ago many were rightly registering their outrage at the restrictions to online democratic spaces in Myanmar (and conditioning the removal of sanctions upon them).

But the need for digital education was lost in the angry haste to pressure the country to “democratize.” Indeed, media-fueled racism exploded in the country once regulations were removed. Now, many are displaying their anger at Twitter’s and Facebook’s role in fomenting ethnic tension in Myanmar.

The loud reaction to Dorsey’s tweets may also weaken the West’s credibility in promoting freedom of speech in a nation where the crackdown on dissent remains strong.

Many Facebook users in Myanmar have noted their surprise that Dorsey’s own personal experience of the country – which is reflective of the many joyous and peaceful accounts of visitors – was met with such public opprobrium. One user asked: “Are we not allowed to say what we’re actually seeing, hearing and witnessing based on our own experience anymore?” adding, “What kind of freedom of speech is that … regulated by some groups of people?”

The reaction does indeed raise the bigger question of whether we should, or need to, color entire nations and people on the basis of their worst associations. In this case, the anger at Dorsey’s implicit promotion of tourism in Myanmar reflects the more harmful paternalistic instincts of the international community in the developing world. Forcing a country to change hardly ever builds the intrinsic and long-term values and principles it is meant to promote. Here, it may even do more harm.

In fact tourism, directly or indirectly, is a livelihood for many in Myanmar, particularly when the military – which is responsible for the atrocities – expropriates land and other resources from the country’s many ethnic groups. Economically sanctioning those most in need, not to mention innocent, does little to help either deprivation or ethnic relations in Myanmar. It could simply drive further adversarialism against the Rohingya.

The point lost in all the hubbub is that you can still visit a country and be against its human-rights record; the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not inconsistent to promote the fruits of a beautiful country and culture and be in opposition to how some of its people are treated. Indeed, in this light, tourism – as many companies are now tapping into – can be more ethical, by building awareness and ensuring that proceeds largely accumulate to local communities and not the institutions perpetrating persecution.

And above all, it’s important to understand that technology has changed the nature of international diplomacy. International relations no longer simply rest in the hands of a few officials and big names. Today, with the critical mass of retweets, we’re all very much diplomats who should consider the impact of broadcasting our opinions and feelings with greater responsibility, given that they now also wield the power of driving the news cycle, and thus wider public opinion.

We must be aware that publicizing our anger constantly does little to actually solve the problems we are trying to change. It can often blind us to what is truly needed – and sometimes it can even risk doing more harm than good.

Tej Parikh

Tej Parikh is a global public policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter for The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. He tweets @tejparikh90.

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